It’s in the Bones

Baker’s Pick
Mary J. Breen

Sugar Rainbow
Photo Credit: Aimee Quiggle

I was finishing off the sandwiches and brownies left behind on the tea tray and ignoring my mother’s dirty looks. The other girls and their parents had gone, and Mother Superior was trying to hold Mummy’s attention with her tight hungry smile.

“Poor Fiona,” my mother kept saying, “such a big girl.”

“Yes. Yes, indeed,” Mother Superior said.

My father stooped to examine a painting of the flaming souls in Purgatory yearning for their release.

My mother wasn’t done. “Poor girl. Takes after her father. I’ve tried everything, even buying her clothes a size too small, but nothing works.” Then, like always, she held up her tiny wrist for all to see. “But what can I do? It’s all in the bones.”

Mother Superior nodded.

“That’s why we’re entrusting her to your care, Mother. If she insists on being so big, then it’s time she developed some poise and grace. So important for a girl of her size.”

“Sweet Jesus, Barbara!” my father roared as he spun around. Mummy beamed a tight smile at Mother Superior, and grabbed Daddy’s arm. He brought his voice down, but in the shocked silence we all heard him say, “This has nothing to do with that kind of grace! Have you forgotten what she was doing with that damned Protestant reprobate? What she needs is sanctifying grace!”

Mummy nodded quickly to Mother Superior, and rushed Daddy towards the hall, assuring him that the nuns at St. Margaret’s Academy understood a girl like Fiona perfectly.

Well, I thought, I’ll show them.

I skipped meals for three straight days. When I fainted in study hall, they put me in the infirmary. Sister Clement, the Infirmarian, was quick to congratulate me for trying to mortify my flesh, telling me that feeling cold and dizzy was how saints feel when they’re getting closer to God. I let her believe I was fasting in reparation for my well-publicized sins. When she promised to tell my father how repentant I was, I realized that being both thin and contrite was my ticket out of here.

My tunic is already much looser although Mummy didn’t even notice when she stopped by last weekend. At least Father Neill has stopped cornering me in the hall with his own hungry look.

I do eat fruit—well, sometimes—but I fainted again in chapel last Friday. Mother Superior came stomping into the infirmary. “For shame, Fiona! Don’t you remember your history? Ireland’s Great Hunger? People eating grass and drinking cow’s blood at night, and still dying left, right, and centre. Remember: a few of those ancestors of ours made it, and you, my girl, have a duty to them to eat!”

I didn’t tell her that Sister Clement says what the body loses, the soul gains.

Today, I only had the Communion wafer.

The other girls eat like pigs at the trough, but I’m not like them anymore.

Tomorrow all I’ll have is six jellybeans. And if I’m really strong, I’ll only eat five.


Mary J. Breen has written two books about women’s health, and her essays have been broadcast on CBC Radio. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines. Email: mjbreen[at]

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